Maybe not the nuclear dawn report's critics predicted

The Leader-Post Regina: Murray Mandryk - April 3, 2009

Today's report on the future of uranium development and nuclear energy might not be what many thought it would be.

It doesn't look like it's going to be quite what Saskatchewan's NDP Opposition expected (although the NDP support Thursday of a government motion to consider "further value-added development of Saskatchewan's uranium industry" suggests one should always expect the unexpected in this debate). But perhaps more significantly, the Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) report to be released today might not be exactly what the Saskatchewan Party government expected, either.

Or at least, that was the buzz from sources on the eve of the release of the panel's controversial $3-million report: "It's not what you expected."

Now, lest we be confused by what that means, don't assume it means the UDP panel is ruling out a nuclear power-generation reactor for this province. The report is likely to cite the need for an addition 1,000 megawatts of power to meet both additional consumption needs and to replace aging power infrastructure (similar to what Bruce Power indicated the province needed by 2018 in the company's own feasibility study that recommended building two 1,000- megawatt reactors here).

But while reactor opponents may see this as the government's road map to a nuclear reactor, sources insist the report goes to great lengths to also detail the prohibitive costs associated with nuclear power generation, including the required improvement to Saskatchewan's power grid. (Grid costs have certainly been a bone of contention and were again raised by the NDP in Thursday's question period. The Opposition noted that the Crown Investment Corp.'s own briefing notes on Bruce's feasibility study suggest the Saskatchewan government would have to commit to make the required upgrades to the grid to accommodate the two Bruce reactors.)

However, sources say that Bruce -- which had three directors on the UDP panel -- hasn't exactly endeared itself to the Sask. Party government, with the power company's hard-sell approach in this province going as far as already approaching farmers on potential land purchases. In other words, that means the report might not be quite as pro-nuclear-power generation and pro-Bruce as some expect.

Perhaps even more unexpected, sources say, is the report's downplaying of the potential in either uranium conversion or enrichment as viable economic opportunities for this province.

Conversion of raw uranium to processed yellowcake only accounts for about three per cent of the potential economic value of the cycle, those close to the industry say. But what's more surprising is the lack of profitability in enrichment, long thought to be the economic opportunity the Saskatchewan uranium industry has been most missing. And with new enrichment facilities in Japan, Russia and Idaho, it appears that enrichment will not get significantly more profitable any time soon.

The study will likely emphasize that Saskatchewan is already well established in the most profitable area of the nuclear cycle -- mining, that accounts for 40 per cent of the money in the uranium development industry.

However, sources expect the study to place heavy emphasis on the potential of a smaller reactor (between 125 and 400 megawatts) for medical and scientific research and perhaps medical isotopes. Much bigger than a slowpoke reactor, such a reactor could make Saskatchewan a world leader in research (something that Enterprise Minister Lyle Stewart has surely hinted at in recent days).

Finally, the UDP is expected to be hawkish on nuclear waste storage, even if the Saskatchewan government and public isn't. Northern Saskatchewan, along with Ontario and Quebec, remain the most viable locations for nuclear waste disposal.

That leaves Stewart (who, as they say in political parlance, got way too far in front of this issue) with the rather messy task of unveiling a credible public consultation process that won't be the "sham" that NDP leader Lorne Calvert and others suspect it will be.

Sources say that sessions have already been slated for Regina and Saskatoon (at least two each involving the public and stakeholders), and Prince Albert, Swift Current, Lloydminster, North Battleford, Estevan and La Ronge, even though the government is still struggling to find a chairperson who will bring credibility to the process.

But if the public consultation is as unexpected as sources say the UDP report will be, things could get rather interesting.

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